Standards fall victim to growing demand for housing

Review geared to discover if building compliance standards are stopping development

New building regulations came into force in February 2014. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

New building regulations came into force in February 2014. Photograph: Rui Vieira/PA

 

There has been very good news in recent days on the rate of construction of new homes – or reasonably good news, depending on whose statistics you buy into.

The Department of the Environment has published housing statistics showing just over 11,000 homes were built in 2014; 2,700 more than in 2013.

However, the Society of Chartered Surveyors Ireland said the news wasn’t quite that good. The Government ’s house completion figures are based on the number of houses connected for electricity. The surveyors say about 20 per cent of homes hooked up to the grid had been built in previous years, but left unsold until last year.

The surveyors say about 8,900 homes were built last year, but this is also an estimate, based on information gathered from their members, and homes on which construction started in earlier years.

Whichever figures are accurate, it means things are going in the right direction, which is good news for the Government’s housing strategies.

Both the Construction 2020 Strategy, now close to its first birthday, and the more recent Social Housing Strategy rely on the private sector building houses, to meet the demand in the Dublin area, and to tackle council waiting lists which are spiralling towards the 100,000 mark.

Regulations

The Government has put itself in a position where it needs to ensure the climate is balmy for developers. In this regard there is one feature of last week’s statistics that is particularly interesting; construction started on about 8,000 homes last year, but in the case of more than half those developments, it started in February.

The following month new building regulations came into force, introduced in the wake of a slew of construction scandals, from the certification as safe of the fire-trap Priory Hall apartment complex in north Dublin, to the use of the defective of pyrite, a building material which caused severe structural damage to homes across the greater Dublin area.

The regulations required developers to have “assigned certifiers” – registered architects, engineers or building surveyors – inspect building works during construction and certify that a finished building complied with building standards.

The then environment minister Phil Hogan said their introduction would end “light-touch regulation” by stopping “self-certification” that allowed developers to declare their work met building standards.

Except, according to Orla Hegarty, course director at the school of architecture in UCD, the regulations did no such thing.

“The regulations raised awareness but in terms of how effective they are, I would have my reservations, because it is still a system of self-certification.”

The assigned certifier, the architect or engineer who signs off at the end of the build, could be one of the developer’s employees.

“Even what people are calling ‘signing off’ is problematic. Buyers who think they’re getting a guarantee, they’re not. There are no new rights, and they are no better off than they were before.”

The main flaw in the regulations, Ms Hegarty said, is the lack of any independent inspection system.

“Local authorities don’t have to visit the site, they don’t even have to look at a drawing, their role is to keep the file submitted by the developer.” A system of independent inspection, either through local authorities or through the establishment of a panel of independent building inspectors, needs to be introduced she said.

Building sites

“When the Health and Safety Authority began inspecting building sites the level of work-place accidents plummeted. An inspector could close the site. That is the kind of teeth needed to get compliance with regulations.”

The regulations are now being reviewed by Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly, and interested parties have until May 15th to make submissions.

However, the review is not focusing on whether the system has improved building standards, but rather whether the cost of implementing last year’s regulations is holding back development, particularly in relation to the construction of one-off housing.

The terms of reference include proposals to make certification advisory rather than mandatory for one-off houses; to broaden the pool of people who can be assigned certifiers; to exempt house extensions under a certain size; or to set out guidance on certification fees for single dwellings.

“The review is very, very limited and is not addressing the problems that are there,” said Ms Hegarty. “It seems to be more about watering down what little is there. Exempting houses is the wrong way to go, you’ll have more septic tanks wrongly connected, and more fire issues.”

Director of the Construction Industry Federation Hubert Fitzpatrick said the compliance requirements should stay in place for all builders.

“There should be a consistent basis in relation to oversight. There shouldn’t be any relaxation for any particular part of the industry.”

The regulations were not what was holding back the construction of housing but “deficits in infrastructure, planning issues and payback issues” Mr Fitzpatrick said.

The Dublin housing taskforce set up under Construction 2020 identified land which could be opened up for development but was held back through lack of infrastructure such as sewers, water supplies, and roads.

In terms of planning issues and the requirement to deliver high-density development necessitated the building of apartments in areas where they would not sell, he said.

But probably the biggest impediment to development was access to funding. “Opening up larger parcels of land for development involves significant up-front costs and banks want the capital to be paid back in too short a time”

There were costs involved in complying with building regulations, but they were not the costs that were stopping building, he said.

“The compliance system has added somewhat to the cost, but it gives additional assurance to occupiers that the standards have been adhered to, so it is a cost that must be borne.”

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